They say necessity breeds invention, and, if that’s the case, RuPaul’s Drag Race season 12 made invention a sloppy, little bottom.
Already hamstrung by controversy, the shaky start to season 12 was just the beginning as production (and the rest of the world) was pummeled by the pandemic. Instead of the appropriately grandiose grand finale, the queens, like the rest of us, would be clocking in from their homes.
Anyone following even a smattering of their local queens has grown accustomed to seeing the sort of home-baked performances they’ve been cranking out in quarantine. (And, if you’re not following other queens, stop reading this recap and go support them immediately, give them a ‘like,’ follow them on all the social platforms, buy their merch. You cannot say you love drag if you’re not supporting queens BEFORE they get on this show.) Drag Race wisely took their cue from what’s been working online and constructed a finale that tested skills while working within the COVID constraints.
We got the usual filler interviews (including, as I predicted, the ham-fisted “What would you tell this picture of yourself as a child to make yourself cry on camera?”) and a recap of each queen’s journey to this point. It wasn’t any more or less compelling than usual. (Did we ever really need all that conducted before a packed house anyway?) If anything, the vamping and hooting and hollering is typically merely another time-waster, overstuffing an already usually packed finale.
With the exception of crowning Miss Congeniality (which, as expected, went to a very deserving Heidi N Closet), we know we’re just here for the lip syncs. If you’ve seen any stand-up comedy shows on Zoom or similar streaming platforms, you’ve by now gleaned the importance of an audience for all sorts of live theater. How would these virtual showdowns compare?
Credit is due to the producers for conceptualizing three unique rounds to test the ladies’ skills, though they weren’t all equally compelling.
The first, a close-up lip sync, challenged the queens to get up close and personal with the camera for a neck-up lip sync to Ru’s latest song. Jaida wisely added dynamism to her performance by moving closer and further from the camera, adding a level of depth that helped her “pop out” of the screen more than her competitors. Gigi had a sharp, expressive take on the track. Crystal was fine!
Don’t feel too badly for the kooky queen, because the next round is where she really shined. Tasked with producing a one-of-a-kind lip sync of their choosing, Crystal put a warped spin on Nelly Furtado’s “Like A Bird.” Playing both a mama and baby bird and incorporating puppetry, Crystal was all innovation (and regurgitation!). It was easily the most creative of the top three, and it will likely go down in the annals (I said ANNALS) of herstory as one of the show’s most memorable performances.
Gigi also experimented with the form, bringing a light TikTok touch to her performance of “Take On Me” that recalled the iconic video’s black and white world. The flourishes were nice, but the production lacked the wacky details of Crystal’s. (Not a surprise if you recall Crystal’s expertly self-directed commercial challenge.)
Not to take anything away from Jaida, but her at-home lip sync to Ciara, was just that: a lip sync at home. It was well performed, and she looked fierce as hell (wait, are we still saying fierce? ok, boomer), but I was left wanting for a little more artistic vision. She looked incredible, and it felt like a Ciara video. Not a Beyoncé video, mind you, a Ciara video.
Ru had initially promised that one queen would be dropped after the first two rounds, but decided to keep all three, which has sort of become a habit this season. Still, it feels like the right move. We probably would’ve lost Jaida after the first two rounds, based on those performances alone, and that simply doesn’t make sense.
For the final round, production had sent all three gals the exact same stage setup and props for a final performance. This was a great way to level the playing field and put the focus on the performance. Under those constraints, Crystal looked great and turned in a serviceable sync, but was quickly overshadowed by her competitors.
Jaida truly embodied the notion of lip syncing for one’s life, giving her absolute all in a stunning sync that featured tearaways, high kicks and a cape that placed a print of a crown on a transparent background over head. If anything, she might have done almost TOO MUCH that, given the challenges of performing virtually, didn’t necessarily translate the way they would on stage. It was almost overwhelming taking it all in.
Gigi struck just the right balance with a Wizard of Oz-themed transformation that unfolded throughout the song in small moments that were easier to appreciate on camera. However, as a lewk queen, neither the before or after were the level of stunning we’ve come to expect.
As the streamers settled in their respective homes, Ru declared Jaida Essence Hall this season’s winner! Jaida is probably the most consistent performer of the season, and she embodies such a dedication to the art of drag. She looked flawless all season, she can dance the house down and she smartly found ways to use her natural personality to compensate when Ru threw something at her outside her wheelhouse. She’s a great winner.
No matter who won, though, it bears repeating that this was an incredibly strong season. Overlong and seemingly CURSED, but once we got to our top six, any one could have made a claim to the crown and no one would have batted an enormous, paper lash. Had we started with a top 10, and without the first two non-eliminations, we could’ve shaved more than a month off this season, and I think it’d be easier to appreciate the rest of the cast in a more concentrated form.
However, there’s enough in the world to gripe about (though, by all means, gripe away in the comments). For now, I raise my quarantine glass (bottle, it’s a bottle) to our winner, and I’m glad I had this (and all of you) to pass the time.
Stay safe and healthy, everyone. I’ll be back to recap All Stars season five … next week?! I guess there’s no rest for the queery.
Also, a huge thank you to Jacqueline Wilson, a long-time producer of the show who passed away after season 12 wrapped.